What I learned by learning my family's recipes in the most trying of times

For immigrants, food is a tie to culture so strong, it's a stabilizer when one is needed most.

For immigrants, food is a tie to culture so strong, it's a stabilizer when one is needed most

(Credit: iStock/Getty Images)

A lot of major events have taken place in my life during the COVID-19 pandemic: I turned 20, completed my undergrad degree, accepted a graduate school offer — and my mom was forced to undergo emergency spine surgery. 

The day my mom went into surgery, my grandmother called with very strict instructions for me to make a dish to, in her words, "spur bone growth." My family has always closely associated health and healing with food. If you want to avoid a cold, steep copious amounts of ginger in your chai. If you're pregnant, eat tamarind rice. So upon her insistence, my sister and I spent hours that day making sesame seed and jaggery ladoos. It felt comforting to toast, grind and shape the ladoos — to connect, via this practice, to the generations of my family who have made these sweets for the people we love when they need them most. 

My home has always been filled with amazing food, thanks to my mom's skill as a home cook. A physician working long hours before and during this pandemic, she has always woken up early to make a variety of dishes before leaving for work: fresh chapathi (roti), Andhra chicken fry, baingan bharta (eggplant). I love and appreciate my mom's food, yet my efforts in the kitchen prior to the pandemic weren't focused on mastering our recipes, and the food that comes from our region in South India. My culinary endeavours have always had more of a Western focus, and until recently, I had only helped my mom cook traditional dishes. I felt daunted by the thought of attempting them by myself and intimidated by the complex flavours and recipe-less intuition that fuels her creations. Yet when the pandemic struck and my mom's healing process began, I suddenly had the time, space and motivation to begin exploring the recipes that have guided my family for generations. 

Over the past few months, my mom has taught me the recipes of her childhood — the copies of which exist only in her brain. I've called my grandmother (who is still quarantined under much stricter conditions in India) often and learned that when my mother moved to Ireland to begin her career, she called her to learn new recipes and vent her frustration about the lack of available ingredients. I also learned about my grandmother's childhood growing up on a farm and the wood-fire cooking techniques they utilized to lend a flavour to their dishes that is difficult to replicate. I even learned about the techniques my great-grandmother created to make her incredibly spicy aavakaaya (mango pickle) and podis, which our region in India is well known for. 

Learning my family recipes during challenging times ties me to a history of preserving food traditions — from my great-grandmother to now. 

"Food is a form of communication," says Christy Fong, echoing my experience. As co-curator of the Richmond, B.C.-based public art project Richmond Food Stories, Fong's aim is to capture the culturally diverse and intergenerational experiences we're having with food during the COVID-19 pandemic. "[Food] is a form of cultural transmission and that is why it is so connected in terms of cultural history and community relations — because it's the same thing." 

For many immigrants — whether they're first-, second- or third-generation — food can be a rare bridge, one that overcomes language and other barriers within families and beyond, allowing people to connect with their communities and culture.   

Karla Jubaily, a colleague of mine and second-generation Filipina–Lebanese woman living in Vancouver, has found this to be true. She has been cooking more traditional dishes than ever before during the pandemic, and by posting photos of her creations on social media, she has been able to engage with members of the Lebanese community. Jubaily says that she previously felt walled off from the community due to stigma against her mixed-race identity and lack of Arabic fluency. "I [used to] feel further away from Lebanese people. By posting the food on Twitter like I've been doing, I've actually connected with a lot of Lebanese folk, Syrian folks, people from the Levantine areas in the Middle East. It's given me a sense of community."

Ria Gupta, an international student from India, has also reconnected with food from her home country during the pandemic. With international borders being closed down, Gupta has been unable to fly home to visit her family in Hyderabad, so she's been learning to cook traditional dishes through a combination of her mother's instructions and YouTube tutorials. 

On a surface level, cooking at home has been more affordable, and her family feels reassured that she's able to create healthy options for herself. But it's also allowed Gupta to incorporate a daily element of comfort and care into her life. "When you are away from home especially, you don't want to be compromising things like food," she says. For her, meal time is a time of reprieve. "[It's] the one time of day you get to just relax and focus on the food, and [if] you're picking things you don't like, it can really make you feel even worse … So it's important for me to be able to actually have … the food I like."

However, Gupta also found herself facing an issue that many people encounter when attempting to make dishes from their childhood: producing the same taste. "[At first, you think,] 'Oh god, what if it's just never going to be like how Mom makes it?' That happens," she says. "But then, through trial and error, when you are able to replicate it exactly how Mom makes it, you feel like you have been let in [on] such secrets." 

Beyond technique and experience, the successful recreation of traditional dishes can also depend on access to ingredients, which is influenced by the climate and agricultural practices where you live. So for families moving between countries, replicating and passing down their recipes can be a source of great frustration. 

Sinikka Elliott, an associate professor of sociology at University of British Columbia, has done extensive research on the relationship between food and families. She explains that the role of food in immigrant families can often be a source of both internal and external conflict.

"What I have found is that mothers who are immigrants often feel accountable for introducing their children [to] and helping their children to develop a taste for food from the mother's home country or their father's home country," she says. "That can sometimes create tension, particularly as the kids may never have lived in that country, and may create an identity in their new country and really want to fit in with [their] peers. And part of that fitting in, we all know, has to do with what you're eating for lunch." 

The effect of this tension can often have long-lasting implications. "The disconnection from that cultural heritage can be very painful for diasporic kids — physically painful, mentally painful," says Fong. "It's hard to think about or interact with their lack of access to language and culture because they feel so unrooted. They may not feel terribly Asian; they may not feel terribly Canadian. But they are expected, from both sides, to be one or the other."

Still, the cuisine of one's culture can be a means to repair a fractured or forgotten relationship with one's migrant identity even outside of cooking. According to Denise Fong (no relation), co-curator of the Richmond Food Stories project and a PhD candidate at UBC, "food is a powerful way of helping people to build those connections that maybe they don't have … or were broken down." 

On a field research trip to southern China with a group of students studying cultural heritage, Denise and Christy witnessed how culture can be understood through merely eating. Patterns become evident, says Christy: "Like, who eats first? Or, how do you serve each other? How do you place the food and approach the idea of sharing main plates? I think that helped a lot of students see that 'Oh, actually, I'm not as disconnected as I thought. I know all these things. I know these practices.'"

Jubaily brought up an experience shared widely. "Preparing a meal for someone is how you say, 'I love you' to them. It's like on Twitter, the immigrant mom cutting fruit when you didn't ask for it."

For me, my family's recipes constitute an oral history, covering their personal journey from southern India to Iraq, Ireland and eventually rural and urban Canada. Our identities are not linked to them specifically, but they are a point of connection to our histories and communities. The importance of this was brought into sharper focus in recent weeks with increasing conversations around the co-opting of BIPOC food and traditions by white chefs, who have been accused of stripping away the history of dishes when presenting them to a white audience. Yet these recipes can't truly exist apart from culture and history; they are a product of a people, a time and place. This is why the successful recreation of traditional dishes can be a tangible comfort for immigrants, especially in challenging times. Food is a way to transport and preserve our culture  — a great stabilizer when it is needed most. 

Neha Tadepalli is a recent UBC graduate. She likes exploring the intersections between the personal and the political in both her writing and her studies.You can find her on Twitter @neha_tadepalli.

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now